Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Mark Twain Industry

A recent post on the Mark Twain Forum -- an electronic list for those interested in the writing and life of Mark Twain got my attention.  It doesn't always happen.  This post was a complaint about an essay in The New Yorker, a piece written by Adam Gopnik titled "The Man in the While Suit:  Why the Mark Twain Industry Keeps Growing" (The New Yorker, 29 November 2010, pp. 78-83).  It seems Gopnik crossed a line when he claimed the new volume of Twain's autobiography to be "the Royal Nonesuch of American Literature" (79; go back and read Huck Finn to catch the entire significance of that), and at least one writer felt that he disparaged Twain scholarship by calling it an industry.  Both reactions are, in fact, unreasonable given the depth of Gopnik's commentary and his clear understanding of (if not reverence for) Twain's literary accomplishment.  And I wrote to the list to point out the fundamentalist streak in those who worship Twain and accept no criticism of their hero.  Twain had lots of warts, and it does us no good to think of him as a saint.

Anyway.  It is naive to argue against the industrial analogy when looking to the work done in Twain's name.  Few writers inspire as large a number of major publications each year as does Twain .  That is especially true of 2010, a year in which there appeared at least four major biographies, two editions of the autobiography (my own in a second edition from University of Wisconsin Press and, of course, the Mark Twain Project's hefty first volume), two special issues of journals noting the anniversary of his passing (one from Japan), and a full assortment of academic and popular essays.  Any industrial complex would be thrilled with that kind of output.  And it has been a more or less continual treadmill (or assembly line) since Twain's death.

The problem, of course, is that fans of Twain (as opposed to critics or scholars) can only see the value in works that reinforce the cultural icon (see my earlier post "Challenging the Conventional Mark Twain" from this past August).  For them (and for those involved in assuring the continued cultural and economic success of the icon) there is only a threat when readers (and most critics and scholars are readers) look more deeply into the motivations and accomplishments of Samuel Clemens.  So when someone like Gopnik offers a less than worshipful comment, all hell breaks loose.

What was most offensive about the reaction was that most of those taking extreme umbrage seem never to have read the whole essay.  They responded to a post that offered the abstract of the essay and then just went into rally mode.  Even scholars who should know better reacted with a sense of hurt and anger.  But, then again, some scholars are most interested in maintaining the holy image of Mark Twain rather than being genuinely interested in both the man's writing or the history of their own profession and perhaps their own complicity in pushing an inherently biased icon of Twain on readers.  In short, the "industry" stuck up for its product.  And then complained when it was caught in the act.

More's the pity.

No comments:

Post a Comment